The CEO Mission: How Activism Fills the Void

January 15, 2019

Large corporations have long played an active role in U.S. policy and in defining best practices that impact their bottom lines. But individual corporate leaders rarely took an aggressive stance on social issues and political discussions — until now. The past few years have shed new light on the evolving role of the CEO as it relates to activism. In order to better reflect and serve the companies we lead and the society we’re living in, chief executives and business leaders are increasingly weighing in on issues that impact far more than their profits.

The CEO role will always require a focus on strategy and the operating health of a business. But to drive a healthy business, the focus can’t–or shouldn’t–end there. Business leadership requires a broader perspective, one that includes determining how a company will understand and engage its people, embrace its community, influence policy, and create the best possible environment for it to thrive. In my view, CEOs have a responsibility to be engaged advocates for their employees–both inside and outside of the workplace. Societal, political and cultural issues are pulsing through every organization, primarily in the form of employees who come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and countries. Whether CEOs choose to acknowledge and accept this fact and participate in the inevitable discussions that arise given our diversity, is a personal decision but one that frankly can have major implications on their business. Today’s customer wants to do business with those that share their values, that do good work, that do it the right way, that help and promote positive change, and that understand their responsibility to their customers, employees, partners, and shareholders. (By the way, employees evaluate workplaces in a very similar way.). It is in our own self-interest, therefore, to be active in creating companies and communities that will thrive.

Business Leaders are Stepping Up

It’s difficult to reflect on the past year — and to plan for this one — without considering the impact of public policy on running a business. The leadership void in Washington, D.C. has led to new voices, from businesses of all types and sizes, stepping up and taking a stand on specific social issues ranging from education and healthcare to equality, immigration and gun safety.

A couple of examples from this past year:

  • The notion of encouraging a participative democracy and civic engagement was front and center. Zenefits, along with more than 150 companies — including The Gap, Southwest Airlines, Kaiser Permanente and Sonos — offered Civic Time Off (CTO), making it possible for employees to take paid time off to vote, volunteer in the community, or otherwise get engaged.
  • Heavily politicized issues like gun safety laws saw businesses and their leaders take a more proactive stance. Many see gun ownership as constitutional “sacred ground” and not a place for business to have an opinion. Yet, horrible and regular “active shooter” events all across the country make this, more importantly, a human issue versus a political one. Personally, it was an issue that came literally to our business’ doorstep earlier this year. It’s why I got behind Blake Mycoskie’s new app to unite around our country’s 90% agreement that we need better background checks and flag that to our nation’s lawmakers. And, it’s why companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Levi’s, and others came forward this year to urge Washington DC to resist the gun lobby and create legislation to curb gun violence.

Why and How

While affiliations with political leaders or causes can be risky for CEOs in today’s politically- charged atmosphere, advocacy around issues that impact a company’s people (which I distinguish from activism) makes good business sense. As a CEO with nearly three decades of leadership experience, I understand first hand that talent is what drives a business forward and supporting that talent to grow and thrive is critical to any company’s success.

Today’s workforce, which is now made up primarily of millennials and Generation Z employees, is a fundamentally different talent pool with very different attitudes and ideas. This new generation is demanding more — better benefits, affordable access to education and healthcare, equal pay, a workplace free from harassment and leaders that will ‘inspire’ and not merely ‘manage’. As a result, the social contract between employers and employees has fundamentally changed. Today’s business leaders must be ready and prepared for this transformational shift.

The biggest impact a CEO can make is to provide an employee experience that allows people to be their best, to learn and to do their best work. Much of this comes in the form of creating the right conditions, from a safe, fair and equitable workplace to work that is challenging, rewarding and impactful. CEOs must be proactive about preparing their company for these changes and providing a plan of action to address them. For example, if a company’s training/employee development program overlooks the #metoo challenges in their workplace, it’s missing the bigger picture of how they should be caring for their workforce. If a company isn’t regularly and authentically having a two-way dialogue with its most crucial asset — it’s people — on how it can be the best workplace possible, and in doing so produce great results, it is missing a key ingredient to building a resilient culture that will sustain it.

Customers are also impacted by these issues. They make buying decisions based on how a company behaves and the choices they make. How businesses operate directly affects the customers they attract. Business leaders choose partners and suppliers that share their values, where there is a cultural affinity they perceive as being complementary to their own way of doing business. All are voting with their wallets, their influence, and their conscience every day.

More and more, business leaders are curious to understand new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, and how they can create the type of workplace that can help them win. At Zenefits, being transparent about our views and the thought-leading perspectives we collect from our more than 11,000 customers creates a network and ecosystem that educates, motivates and inspires. In this process of trying to deeply understand and listen to our market we don’t insist on certain viewpoints or opinions but rather we remain faithful to certain fundamental tenets as part of our foundation for decision making — fairness, equality, safety, openness, diversity, inclusion. As a result, we aspire to be a company that welcomes different opinions, celebrates diversity, and champions an open and transparent culture.

The collective —and divisive— zeitgeist of our country this last year bears testament to the need not only for advocacy and speaking up but also for reconnecting through both leadership and civil discourse around the things to matter to us personally, professionally and socially. The health and vibrancy of our country, our businesses, and our people depend on it.

Jay is Chairman & CEO at Zenefits. He brings more than 20 years of experience in leading both public and private technology companies. Previously, Jay served as CEO of Ooyala, and Agile Software. Before that, Jay was a senior executive at both PeopleSoft and SAP. Jay is a member of the Global Leadership Council at the Lucas Graduate School and College of Business at San Jose State University.

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